Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What is the meaning of life?

More reader feedback today:
Many YECs reject the notion that plants -- and indeed all non-vertebrate organisms (e.g., insects) -- are alive, usually citing the Bible's use of the term "nephish". ... Despite this, many other YEC (or, more broadly, anti-evolution) sources describe plants and other inverts as possessing "life" or being "alive" ... Thus, there appears to be one camp of YECs who believe plants and inverts to be alive, and another camp who rejects this notion based on the Bible's description of "nephish". As someone concerned about the classification of biodiversity, what are your views about the subject?
Good question, and I can see why people can get confused.

Basically, there's two concerns here. First, there's the standard biology that everyone of us learns. Living things include humans, animals, plants, fungi, and all sorts of tiny things that you need a microscope to see. Second, there's the question of what kind of death was introduced at the Fall. That's where creationists want to distinguish between the biblical concept of life and the biological concept. For the sake of brevity, I'm going to skip the argument that more than just human death was part of the Curse. Assuming that biblical "death" only applies to those things that are biblically "alive" leads creationists to limit the concept of biblical "life" to only certain kinds of things that are biologically alive.

What is biblically "alive?" Things that move and breathe. Biblical "life" is concerned with a holistic experience rather than some abstract quality that the living possess and the dead do not. Oddly enough, the categories of "life" and "death" in the Bible overlap. You could kill an animal, but afterwards you are prohibited from drinking the blood because the "life" is in it (Gen. 9:4). Plants are never described as alive, nor are yeast or pathogenic microbes (like leprosy). Such things can grow, but they are not alive. Some things biblically alive are mammals, birds, fish, and insects, as well as humans and God. I recommend Doug Kennard's paper "Hebrew metaphysic: life, holy, clean, righteousness, and sacrifice" in ARJ for more information.

Thus, when creationists say there was "no death before the Fall," we don't intend "death" to be understood biologically but biblically. Having said that, I think that in the past most creationists have ignored these distinctions when approaching biological questions. For example, I previously tried to apply baraminology ideas to bacteria (see here), but now I'm coming to the conclusion that baraminology may not apply at all to bacteria. The key to understanding bacteria may lie not in treating them biologically like biblically living things but rather in thinking about them as a kind of support system that makes macrobial life (or biblical "life") possible.

I hope that clears things up a little.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.